A little while ago I went out to dinner with a Greek musicologist friend from the ai lab next door. Over fried shrimps he told me he is spending his nights on the Internet playing muds. My non-comprehending glare was answered by the solution to the acronym: Multi User Dungeons. Like in the classic role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, only online and multiuser. After dinner he gave me a brief hands-on intro to how it works. I learned the word 'newbie' ('new kid on the electronic block'). And I learned that although I had an account on the university computer and was using it for e-mail already I had a whole lot more to learn about what this Internet is all about.
I looked around and found The Internet Companion. A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking, by Tracy LaQuey and Jeanne C. Ryer. Whole worlds have opened up ever since, and, as can be expected from such a discovery, huge amounts of time have been spent doing so - and I haven't even got around to multi-player gaming.
The Internet is the largest computer network on the planet, the largest database, the largest bulletin board, the largest computer game. An overlay covering the world as we know it, it's not so much an organization as an organism; a dynamic sphere in which information travels, mates and duplicates, evolving through mutation and metamorphosis.
In fact the Internet is a network connecting several thousand networks, an estimated million and a half computer hosts, and 12-15 million regular users in 45 countries on all seven continents (yes, even in Antarctica). Another 25 million-or-so, users are on 'outernets', networks that use a different protocol, but are connected to the Internet via mail gateways (like Bitnet, decnet, or CompuServe). This worldwide system of networks and gateways, even before Gibson picked it up, has been called the Matrix.
With all the hype about future multi-media, interactivity, virtual reality, isdn etc., and in contrast to their slow acceptance, the Internet is an absolute success-story in technical media. It's spreading like a wild-fire: 10%-plus a month! And that's with pretty-much no advertising.
During the last five years the Internet has grown from a tool of academics to one used by anyone from primary school children to the President of the usa. And it has it all: interactive by nature, it has sounds and images, Hypercard stacks, PostScript files and software for whichever system you can think of. Video-conferencing on the Internet is already being tested, although that will take some time before it hits the regular Internetter. muds and other VR experiments may not be 3-d yet, but as close to a multi-player virtual reality as we can get right now. The Internet seems to be both institutional and antiinstitutional at the same time, massive and intimate, organized and chaotic. (Companion)
When you try to define the Internet you're in the same position as the three blind men describing an elephant. Since they don't see the whole - in the case of the Internet even the most clear-sighted people can't - it appears different depending on which part you happen to get a hold of.
The Internet is many things: an archive of multi-media information, a convenient production tool (The Internet Companion itself is proof of the point. Although the two authoresses had never met face-to-face and live almost 2,000 miles apart they wrote this book together in less than eight weeks), a global brain waiting to be picked, with access to the calculation capacity of super-computers, at the same time offering the chance to turn into a Klingon or explore dangerous monster-infested realms, or, simply: life itself. Some see it as the ultimate democratiser, removing barriers of nationality, race, sex, age: everybody's worth what s/he has to say. For others, it's the of the social in virtual intercourse and information overload.
Technically the Internet is not one network but a multitude of interconnected local and wide-area networks. All makes and sizes of computer are connected, from super-computer to laptop. The channels consist of dedicated high-speed leased lines, glass-fibres, undersea-cables, satellite channels, ham radio frequencies, phone lines - anything that can carry data packets. The speeds vary accordingly. Although the backbones run at speeds of up to 45 megabits (and Gigabit-per-second networks are being developed), typical transfer speeds I experience here at the Todai mainframe for downloads from sites in the us
are between 1 and 15 kbytes/s - but whatever I download onto my laptop has, anyway, to be squeezed through the 2.4 kbit of the modem in my laptop.
Pretty much all this mass of machines and nets have in common is a set of over 100 protocols commonly known as tcp/ip (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. Some of the others are smtp for mail, ftp for file transfers and telnet for remote login), and not even that is true. Officially, the Internet is considered a multi-protocol net. Parts of it are running the International Standards Organisation's osi (Open Systems Interconnection). The keywords are openness and interoperability. Open architecture allows for add-ons, modules with new communications capabilities that can be implemented on top of the basic layers. The matrix consists of multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-media, multi-protocol, multi-layer packets travelling over multiple paths at multiple speeds. And despite the range of different computers and disparate networks, for the user it nevertheless looks seamless.
Conceptually, the Internet is a space for problem solving. Questions can be of an academic, business or purely frivolous nature. With the vast resources, the range of possible answers is also immense - although for obvious reasons there will always be those questions that can only be answered outside the Net. Here as there, the trick is to ask the right questions in the right way. The most important piece of information for potential users to know is that the resource is gigantic and is growing larger. If it were an eggplant, we'd be in real danger. (Steve Cavarak, in Companion)
What will you find if you step through the looking glass into the 'electronic wonderland'? Resources, we are told by our Companion, are anything that you can access on the Matrix, be it hardware, software, or wetware. The sheer mass of them is overwhelming, and you could spend your whole life just browsing around. Fortunately, there are lists, meta-information, pointers and tools that help you manoeuvre and direct your search.
The most important treasure-trove is of the wetware kind: the brains and fingertips of 40 million people. The Internet emerged from the world of computer scientists, physicists, engineers, mathematicians, researchers in university, government, private, and military labs. Today, students often get access through their university computer. Librarians and political activists developed the Internet for their purposes from early on. bbss hook up all sorts of hobbyists, otaku and hacker kids. Teachers and schoolkids are online, farmers and doctors, business people and politicians, specialists on anything from laserdiscs to homebrew psychedelic chemistry. You can tap their wisdom by participating in electronic fora like newsgroups, mailing them directly, or downloading the information
they compiled. Of course, it will be appreciated if you contribute your own cent's worth.
The collective information compiled from all the postings to a news group is edited into Frequently Asked Questions (faq) documents. These are very curious kinds of books. They're available on any technical subject, but also on parasites of the common house dog or on the work and life of Douglas Adams. With long lists of contributors they are the best example of authorless writing I know of. Sort of collected common sense where the whole is more than the sum of it's parts. Information that survived long enough on the net without being corrected by someone is considered true. Since this truth is as fluid as the Net itself, these hypertexts are updated every week or two.
The net has not only consequences for writing but obviously also for publishing. The electronic library contains classics like Alice in Wonderland, copies of
Burroughs' Gods of Mars, and useful reference material like the cia World Factbook, containing standard info on each country of the world, such as
population statistics, the country's government, economy, addresses of us embassies, number of communists and the like. 'Project Gutenberg' has as its declared goal To Give Away One Trillion Texts By December 31, 2001 (10,000 titles to 100,000,000 people equals 1,000,000,000,000).
Library catalogs and bibliographies, such as the catalog of the us Library of Congress, are available to everyone in the world, 24-hours-a-day, at no charge. The lc also provides the newly-opened Soviet archives and exhibits from the Vatican, including pic files.
There's a free copy of an environmental magazine around, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's newsletter is printed on 100% recycled electrons, and maybe even Mediamatic will come online. Other libraries, magazines and wire services are available for a fee or licensed only to a specific school. Other archives offer free- and shareware. You can find editors, communication software, virus protection, tools and games for any kind of operating system.
As a programmer's playground, the first generation of Internet inhabitants didn't care much to make it user-friendly, as long as it was efficient and documented. With its popularization and exponential growth, servers have emerged that make it easier to find your way in this sea of information. Retrieval tools like wais, Gopher, or World Wide Web let you search hundreds of databases for texts, images and sounds with a single interface.
Another one-stop info mall is Archie. It automatically tracks more than 1,300 software archive sites with several millions of files. Let's say you were looking for this great communications program for the pc called Telix. Archie would run around for you and report all the hosts and directories where you can pick it up.
Another yet-to-be-solved problem is an equivalent to the telephone book for e-mail addresses. Individual sites and organizations keep lists that can be queried from outside. There are experimental address servers like Whois on nic.ddn.mil (Network Information System.Defense Data Network) or the White Pages. The closest to a network-wide directory is a meta-service called Knowbot, which provides a uniform interface to search various of these directories.
The jury is still out on whether mudding is 'just a game' or 'an extension of real life with gamelike qualities'. (mud-faq) And, yes, since its an electronic universe, there's also fun, sex & rock 'n roll, and some mean killing going on out there. You can view the Internet as one big communication game, and indeed 'doing things with words' is the basic mode of interacting. A pure communication game is Internet Relay Chat (irc) where people throw one-liners at each other like in party small-talk. muds are similar, only that conversation topics are linked to the consensual hallucination of a fairytale world, space battle, furry
animal kingdom etc. mudding started in 1979, and exploded together with the Internet at the end of the 1980s. For an authoritative definition here's a quote from the mud-faq:
A mud (Multiple User Dimension, Multiple User Dungeon, or Multiple User Dialogue) is a computer program which users can log into and explore. Each user takes control of a computerized persona/avatar/incarnation/character. You can walk around, chat with other characters, explore dangerous monster-infested areas, solve puzzles, and even create your very own rooms, descriptions and items. You can also get lost or confused if you jump right in, so be sure to read this document before starting.
Not only newbies get confused, though. The anonymous interaction from behind nicknames leads some players to verbally abuse others. The mud-faq reminds us that in muds you shouldn't do anything that you wouldn't do in real life, even if the world is a fantasy world. There's a human being on the other side of each and every wire!
Well, up to a point. A little further down in the faq we're told about cyborgs defined as part man, part machine. Many human players are assisted by subroutines automatizing some of the communications for them. They automatically greet everyone entering a room or pass out cookies or beers. So if you find yourself hit over the head with a bone-crushing sound again and again you might pick up the human part of your avatar and run, or code your own little helper to keep the bastard off you back.
A bot is a computer program which logs into a mud and pretends to be a human being. Some of them, like Julia, are pretty clever - legend has it that Julia's fooled people into believing that she's human. Others have less functionality. The most common bot program is the Maas-Neotek model. *
Besides being useful and entertaining, the Internet is also an electronic biosphere. There's life in the Net - and I'm not talking about communications-junkies who don't have a life outside of it. alife has become the latest hype in computing. It started with viruses. The metaphor was inspired by bioforms that represent the information paradigm in its pure form: nothing but a string of dna and a docking device for injecting it into a cell. It then inserts itself into the control centre of the host taking over the whole machinery. alife had a spectacular appearance with the famous InternetWorm that infected an estimated 250,000 computers in November 1988 (you might remember some of the panic and the sensational discovery that the runaway worm was set loose by the son of the chief scientist of the National Computer Security Center of the nsa). Other quasi life-forms found on the net are Trojan horses that pretend to be your regular login procedure and collect passwords, and robots in irc and muds. This is likely nothing more than the beginning of a whole bionic evolution. Maybe in the future our tools will not be coded but bred.
The Internet grew out of the arpanet (Department of Defense's Advanced Projects Agency Net), the mother of all networks. arpanet began in 1969 as a us government-sponsored experiment in the defense research world. The aim was to allow computer scientists to share resources such as supercomputers. Quite unexpectedly, the most popular use turned out to be electronic mail. In the late 1970s, cooperative, decentralized networks such as the worldwide uucp (Unix-to-Unix-copy) and usenet (User's Network) came into being. At about the same time attempts started to interconnect arpanet with an experimental packet radio and a packet satellite network. For this purpose tcp/ip was developed. First put to use in 1983, it's been declared open and nonproprietary,
meaning anybody can build soft- and hardware around it.
Which inspires a lot of people to create useful shared tools and try their fantasy on it. Now there are implementations of tcp/ip for every type of computer, from Amiga to next and dec. The original nets have since been retired. arpanet became darpanet and in 1990 merged with the Internet at large, ceasing to exist as a separate entity.
Politically, the Internet is a mix of imperialist us military (c3i) logic, noholds-barred media anarchist culture of university computer labs, the practicality of librarians, and a touch of West Coast free love, free music, free information. For too many people the Internet has been uncharted territory, and as a result they have hesitated to explore the vast potential of networking. I trust this book will change that. (Al Gore, intro to the Companion)
But then again, it's not by chance that the Internet Companion was forwarded by America's vice president. Albert Gore has been rooting for 'information superhighways' since the early 1980s. The result was the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991. Its aim is to give a big boost to network resources and widespread access in the name of national technological superiority, and maybe even in the hope of re-linking the entrenched, multi-cultural society with high-capacity data lines.
Centerpiece of this highway will be the National Research and Education Network (nren). It will incorporate the nsfnet (National Science Foundation Network
which had earlier replaced the non-military part of arpanet) and other networks of federal agencies in military, space science and energy research. The nren backbone will run at one gigabit-per-second and is to be completed in the mid-1990s. The high capacity allows for data-shovelling applications like video-conferencing, but will first of all soak up the increasing traffic on the Net. The target is to hook up all colleges and universities that are not online yet, plus libraries, schools, the health care industry, manufacturing, and even homes.
The massive efforts have provided the us with a clear lead and dominance in networking. You can feel it when you move on the Net where the common language is 7-bit ascii and English. The us dominance is also shown by a count of computers on the Internet. In January 1992, of 700.000 hosts more than 500.000 were American, followed way behind by Australia, Germany, and Canada. *
The same techno-nationalism drives Japan and Europe to catch up. Japan has announced a large-scale networking project under the heading of 'social infrastructure'. Government will pump massive amounts into kick starting a fibre-optic broadband isdn network that is supposed to reach every home and business by 2015. The Internet is comparatively small in Japan. While all the committees were talking about tcp/ip vs osi, one man, Jun Murai, single-handedly
got it off the ground.
Internetworking and protectionism don't go together. As an information space and as a living structure, Internet is decentral and transnational by definition, and defies all techno-nationalism. Outside the three main economic blocks, the networks reach out even to remote islands in the Pacific like Tonga or Papua New Guinea. There are very active communities of Internetters in Singapore and Taiwan. User-wise, it doesn't discriminate whether you're in to pets, sm or Emacs. No one country or organization is in charge, let alone in control, of the whole structure.
The highest forum for technical and operational aspects is the Internet Society. As a professional, non-profit organization it brings together about 1,000 people
concerned with keeping the Net running, while researching and developing future services. Our Companion talks about futuristic plans for connecting
vending machines and household appliances like toasters and stereos to the Internet. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell us what we'll do with the pack of cigarettes
after we tele-instructed the vending machine to spew it out.
But back to politics. Most of the government-funded parts of the Internet have an 'accepted use policy' that disallows any commercial traffic. This created a culture of free and shared information that is very refreshing compared to the rest of the media world. In practice, though, there's a strong trend towards more commercial network and service providers.
In practice, the power politics you'll most often be confronted with is that of the sys.op or manager of your hosts. In muds these people are simply called Gods. Gods are the people who own the database, the administrators. Gods can do whatever they want to whomever they want, whenever they want - it's their mud. If you don't like how a God acts or lets his Wizards act toward the players, your best recourse is to simply stop playing that mud, and play another. (mud-faq)
Culturally, the Net is as complex and diverse as the backgrounds of its participants. But each medium creates a shared culture around its use. Also on the Internet there's folklore and nettiquette. A common experiential world is expressed in a jargon which can be sampled in the Hacker's Dictionary. The forms of interaction are mostly restricted to typing ascii, but enhanced with emoticons ;-) and a little fantasy to make up for the narrow bandwidth, it'' sufficient to argue, scream, fight, and have sex together. Tricky though: speed-writing interactive erotica with one hand on the keyboard.
A sociology of the Internet would be worthwhile writing. But for now, as always with new media, our understanding of how they will change our lives lags far behind our actions. As to the positive social and environmental effects, the Companion mentions less air-pollution through telecommuting to work and a new freedom for the physically handicapped. But the prediction that it will give families more time together at home is doubtful. With the 10-year-old daughter in chat-mode with her tele-boyfriend in Finland, mother doing online research for her firm, and daddy playing go with a Japanese he has and never will meet, the family is at home alright, but togetherness might be more of a virtual thing.
Art and literature will definitely pick up the Net. I'm just waiting for the first network novel consisting of nothing but e-mails and online chats, including screaming and smilies. Maybe an eco-subject like 'who catches the multi-national?' The heros would include a smart-ass schoolkid, a convicted hacker who turned the radio in his cell into an Internet ham-site, a handicapped person, Greenpeace and e-law would lend an institutional hand, and of course, the good guys would always be one packet ahead of the bad ones.
So how do you get online? You think electronic communications is only something for computer nerds and, anyway, so expensive that only companies can use it? Wrong! Anyone intrigued by the complexity and intricacy of the Internet - perhaps the most complex structure ever created - should check it out. Internet is not about engineering and computer science, but communication. To place a telephone call you don't have to be an communications engineer either. And it's cheaper than phone-calls, faxes, or snail-mail.
It's easiest if you're a university student: just ask you computer centre for instructions. Same is true if you work in a company with access to Internet. Regular mortal beings need to subscribe to a local commercial Internet provider, or if none is available in your area, to one of the 'outernets' like CompuServe. They're not as powerful as a direct Internet access, since you can't use remote login and filetransfer, but e-mail can be exchanged via gateways, and most of the services on Internet can also be used via mail. Bulletin Board Systems and ham packet radio networks are another way to hook up. Once you have an account, all you need is a computer, a modem, and a communications program.
Then you can pick up the Companion and sample some of the goodies described. It's a menu to the Internet, not of the kind that you pull down from the top of your screen, more like the one in a self-service restaurant. A guide for beginning information connoisseurs. Some of the information in the Companion is already dated only months after it was published, since the Net is constantly changing. But it will set you going on your own. From then on the word 'books' will take on a different meaning.
Tracy Laquey, Jeanne C. Ryer The Internet Companion. A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking, Addison-Wesley, 1993
Bart Anderson, Barry Costales & Harry Henderson, The Waite Group's unix Communications, sams Macmillan 1991 (For people who want an in depth tour of
the Unix tools for the Internet)
John S. Quarterman The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide, Bedford, Mass., 1990
Eric Raimond (ed), The New Hacker's Dictionary, mit Press, 1983 (hardcopy of the online Jargon File)
Adam C. Engst, Internet Starter Kit, Hayden Books, 1993
Once online you can download a lot of other basic information:
NorthWestNet, User Services Internet Resource Guide at: ftphost.nwnet.net in /nic/nwenet/user-guide
Gary Scott Malkin, Q/A for New Internet Users, rfc 1325
mud-faq Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org (jennifer smith), 'Frequently Asked Questions: Basic Information about muds and mudding', in: